Snap a picture. Save a stream.
New iPhone app brings the power of crowdsourcing to local waterways
The future of the world’s water supply just might lie in the palm of your hand--and other hands around the world. Creek Watch, an iPhone application developed by IBM Research, empowers citizens worldwide to monitor their watersheds and report conditions. Every update provides vital data that local water authorities can use to track pollution, manage water resources and plan environmental programs.
The free Creek Watch app is easy to use. Simply stop by any waterway and, with the phone’s GPS enabled, take a photo and submit three crucial pieces of data based on your observations:
- Water level (dry, some or full)
- Flow rate (still, slow or fast)
- Trash (none, some, a lot)
“That’s all it takes to play your part in helping conserve and protect your local water resources,” said Christine Robson, an IBM computer scientist who helped develop Creek Watch. “No expertise or training is required. This is an exercise in crowdsourcing, where every individual is encouraged to become a citizen scientist and get engaged with their environment.”
A new update to the app makes it easy for users to share their photos and findings on Facebook and Twitter. Such visible postings are expected to encourage more users and data points, which in turn make a bigger impact on local waterways.
Interactive map shows worldwide water submissions
IBM Research aggregates the Creek Watch reports and makes them available at creekwatch.org, where water control boards and other interested parties can filter the data and view it as an interactive map or download a spreadsheet. The California State Water Control Board is the first entity to partner with IBM and use Creek Watch to monitor the thousands of miles of creeks and steams across its jurisdiction.
The city of San Jose, California, is already using Creek Watch data to prioritize pollution cleanup efforts on its waterways. In San Jose, California, IBM volunteers participated in Creek Watch Snap Shot Day, using the app as part of the Celebration of Service to mark the IBM Centennial.
With the app in use in 25 countries so far, IBM researchers hope that Creek Watch adoption will continue to grow across the globe. “The iPhone’s GPS system automatically ties each Creek Watch submission to a precise location, allowing water experts anywhere in the world to find local data to use for critical water management decisions,” said Jeff Pierce, who leads the mobile computing research team at IBM's Almaden facility and helped develop Creek Watch.
Walk the dog and file a water report
Although Creek Watch can be used to report on any body of water a person encounters, it is particularly valuable for the data it can provide on smaller, less prominent waterways, which comprise a crucial portion of most watersheds but are too numerous for water boards to monitor without help.
“One of the best ways you can use Creek Watch is to make it part of your routine,” Robson said. “If you regularly walk, jog or bike by a creek or stream, for instance, make a point of providing a regular report from the same spot each week. This way, you can keep the data fresh and note changes in the waterway.”
Seeking smarter ways to use smart phones
By enabling countless individuals to gather and submit data, Creek Watch represents a new kind of data aggregation, analytics and visualization, and in that sense reflects many of the ways IBM is already helping clients make their businesses and industries smarter. From a research perspective, Creek Watch helps IBM Research understand how people use smart phones to gather and share information, as well as the quality of data collected this way.
The Creek Watch platform holds enormous potential for similar applications that can be used to monitor and report on just about any aspect of one’s environment: city services (report potholes, late buses), wildlife, noise pollution, air quality and global warming.